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He Was Going to Close the Family Diner. Then He Got a Sign.

Doors opened at 5:30 a.m., welcoming “the morning coffee crew,” including the homeless who could get free coffee, said Susan Guercio, who has been a customer for 22 years. Doors closed at midnight, seven days a week. That is, until the pandemic shut the city down last March.

But his father tried to be upbeat about the situation, Mr. Panayiotou recalled. “I remember one of the waiters said: ‘All right, Pete. Goodbye,’ and my dad said, ‘Not goodbye — till I see you again.’”

The next day, Chris’s father complained about a stomachache. “We told him, ‘Maybe you’re nervous,’” Mr. Panayiotou said. It was the first time Gee Whiz had shut down in 30 years, apart from the aftermath of Sept. 11, during which Peter Panayiotou spent several months cleaning up the damage from the terror attacks, just blocks away.

Being exposed to the pollution in 2001 contributed to Peter Panayiotou’s need for a double-lung transplant seven years ago. As the virus emerged, he was 65 years old and considered high-risk for Covid-19. To be safe, the family took him to the emergency room, but he was sent home and told to isolate. By then, Chris’s mother, Maria, 67, had tested positive for the virus. Two days later, his father returned to the emergency room, but was again sent home. The following day, he turned blue. An ambulance came.

“That was the last time we saw Dad, turning that corner in the ambulance,” Mr. Panayiotou said. This time, his father remained at the hospital and was put on a ventilator. He died on April 5, nine days after the death of Andy Koutsoudakis, his business partner of 30 years, also from Covid-19.

Chris was devastated. Days were spent in bed, and nights were spent on his living room sofa staring at the wall in the dark. He started smoking again, going through a pack of Marlboro 27s a day and shedding close to 50 pounds in four months.

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